'Rose Man' retires without taking a sick day


He's retiring today with a perfect attendance record: He has never called in sick.

Officially, Leon is a groundskeeper or gardener, but to the faculty and staff at Mission College, he is a remarkable, self-trained horticulturalist.

Leon began planting roses in the 1970's when the campus first opened. It was a skill he picked up from tending to the gardens and yards of the estates of wealthy residents of the Peninsula and Santa Clara Valley. There was no budget, and Leon decided what varieties to plant and where to place them.

"This was all created by me," said Leon. "What I wanted -- I asked for donations, which they gave me, and I just started."

Even on a cold December day, most of the rose bushes are in bloom or are in bud, seeming to wish their caretaker well.

"You just can't put it in the ground and let it go," Leon said. "There are things you got to do: You got to baby it. Tender loving care, you know?"

Leon is retiring today and moving to Susanville.

Anna Brown was walking across campus today with her daughter, who is a Mission College student. She was admiring the beauty of the rose gardens as we were interviewing Leon. A former floral shop employee, Brown was impressed to learn of John Leon's 33 years of tending to the roses. She said the gardens must serve as a kind of aromatherapy for the students.

"I worked in a florist shop for a few years, and when I had a bad day, if I really wanted to feel better, I'd open up the freezer," said Brown. "I would walk in and just breathe in the flowers and roses. It works."

Leon, in fact, has his favorite roses and knows each variety by name. As he walked us around, he pointed out the ones known for their color and the ones with the greatest fragrance.

The Fragrant Cloud is one of his favorites for its distinctive, perfume-like scent.

"It doesn't have much of a bloom, but this is the one," said Leon. "It's very strong -- very strong fragrance on it."

How did he manage to go without a single sick day in 33 years? Leon surmises that working outdoors is probably a major reason, having access to fresh air and sunshine. Mission College long ago stopped honoring him with perfect attendance awards.

Leon loves his roses, but he will leave them behind to devote more attention to another rose in his life, his wife Rose.

"I hate to go," he says, "but there's a time and this is the time for me. So thank you."

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